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Groceries for downtown

June 02, 1997

In the past 20 years, we've seen grocery stores come and go in downtown Hagerstown. Grand Union on Baltimore Street became Community Market, then closed. The A&P on Potomac Street became Sword's Market, then closed. The Martin's Supermarket on Cleveland Avenue, on the fringe of downtown, moved to a larger location on U.S. 40 East.

None of these decisions were driven by a dislike of downtown, or the people who live there. It was business, pure and simple, and getting a store to provide better service to downtown residents will take more than the petition drive currently under way.

What will it take? A cooperative effort between city government officials, the Washington County Commission on Aging and someone (or some corporation) willing to provide residents with more than they have now.

Downtown actually does have two markets now - Spickler's on Franklin Street and the Potomac Grocery on South Potomac Street. In fairness to these merchants (who will certainly be affected by any new competition) they ought to get first shot at any government help with expansion. They know downtown clientele and what sells and what doesn't.

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The first step should be a survey of residents in the senior-citizen complexes, to see what they want to be able to buy downtown. A full-sized, full-service grocery store would be nice to have downtown, but there's no profit in keeping shelves full of inventory that no one buys.

Maybe the answer is an order-and-delivery service like that used by the food-buying cooperatives that sprung up in the 1970s. Residents could order what they wanted, then have it delivered. Not as nice as being able to see what you're buying in advance, but better than lugging a couple of heavy bags onto the bus.

If a grocery decides to locate downtown, or if one of the existing ones decides to expand, there'll be a need for a low-cost loan and maybe some city-owned space with reasonable rent. That's because the free market has failed to provide what the people downtown say they want downtown. Now it's up to government to lend a hand with something new.

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